Infusing Writing Lessons with Mentor Texts

We spend a lot of time touting the benefits of mentor texts for students for obvious reasons! Mentor texts — professional pieces of writing that are current and relevant to this year’s students — can guide and inspire their writing in ways that we alone can’t. Additionally mentor texts:

  • connect our writers to their passions
  • connect our writers to other writers — in our classrooms and in the real world of writing
  • equip our student writers with writing tools they’ll need throughout their schooling and after
  • provide our students with rich reading experiences
  • invite our students to read closely, many times over
  • offer interesting, authentic ways for our students to meet the standards they will be tested on at the end of the year
  • remind our students they are writers in a very real world brimming with very real writers
  • connect our writers to current events and hot topics

In short, mentor texts do everything for our students.

But perhaps one of the best kept secrets of mentor texts is that they help teachers. They can make our teaching lives easier and richer in myriad ways. One of the main reasons I am so grateful to have discovered the power of mentor texts in my teaching is because they  streamline my writing lessons and provide a natural rhythm my students and I can follow in every class period. 

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The graphic shows that mentor texts help guide the flow of every writing lesson in class and make the format of the class predictable. We know from Katie Wood Ray that predictability in a writing classroom frees our students up to do the most important thing — to write — rather than worry about what’s happening in class and if they’re going to think it’s fun. That same predictability also helps the teacher. No more late nights figuring out what activities to do with students tomorrow. I know what my lesson is going to look like before I even write it, and I have mentor texts to thank for that.

The framework is simple. You begin by introducing the big idea of the lesson in very simple terms. For example, last week I taught a lesson about endings in poetry. At the beginning of the lesson, I said, “Today you will learn how end your poems strongly — to end them with a click.” (The click part comes from poet Maxine Kumin who argues that the end of a poem should mimic the sound of a closing door: “if not the slam..then at least the click of the bolt in the jamb”.)

Then I projected five techniques writers use to bring their poems to a close (see below). Many teachers enjoy creating posters on giant-sized post it notes to display the writing lesson. Google Presentations is my preferred method, as you’ll see below, because I am not confident in my poster-making skills 😉

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This lesson fell at the end of a three-week study of poetry, so my writers were very familiar with rhyme, line breaks, and repetition. The techniques I revealed in this lesson weren’t new to them — but the way in which the techniques could be leveraged to bring their poems to a close were.

Then I said, “Please take out your mentor texts if they’re not already on your desk, so we can take a look at how some of our mentors use these techniques.”

It’s important to mention that, even though my students didn’t pull out their mentor texts until we were a few minutes into the lesson, mentor texts had entirely guided us to that point. The big idea — that writers use repetition, images, and line breaks to end their poems strongly — came from the mentor texts. Because the mentor texts always tell us what to teach. Always. (Click here for Rebekah’s post on where writing lessons come from and how we plan writing studies.)

At this point in a writing lesson — after you’ve introduced the big idea and various techniques for achieving the effect in your writing — there are several ways to directly infuse the lesson with mentor texts:

  • Have students annotate the writing directly in their mentor text packets

This is my go-to method of inviting students to examine the techniques being used by our beloved mentors. Students simply take out their packets, and as you explain each technique in more depth, students  underline, highlight, or use colored pencils to mark the examples in their texts.

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Jillian A’s annotated mentor text

I know we’ve had a great writing study if, at the end, my students’ mentor text packets are worn and dog-eared — maybe even falling apart and in need of a new staple. That’s because we’re digging into these packets on a daily basis, reading each mentor text closely dozens and dozens of time, sucking every last drop of inspiration and guidance out of them.

  • Have students create a visual in their writer’s notebooks

Sometimes having the students directly annotate their packet can feel stale or rote — like you need something to shake up the routine. Invite students to create a visual of the lesson, including excerpts of the mentor texts. To assist them in doing this, consider printing out and cutting up a few excerpts from the mentor texts — excerpts that highlight that lesson’s techniques — so students don’t have to spend any time printing and cutting — they can simply read and think and find a good home for their mini mentor texts in their writer’s notebook.

  • Have students add lesson notes to their touchstone text

At the beginning of a study, as a way to get the beautiful language of their mentors into their heads and hearts, I invite my students to copy a full-length mentor or a favorite excerpt from a mentor text into their notebooks for safekeeping. A third option for infusing your lesson with mentor texts is to ask your students to return to this mentor text (or excerpt) and annotate it with the lesson’s techniques. Anything done in the writer’s notebook tends to feel more personalized and lasts longer because students are far less likely to lose their notebooks than their packets. Below you’ll see a four page spread of the poem Shelter that Dylan D. diligently copied into his notebook and annotated over the course of a few class lessons:

Once students have had an opportunity to think about the new skill or technique introduced and see their mentors using it, it’s time to invite them to consider their own writing and how this technique might amplify what they are currently working on them.

It’s my favorite part of the lesson — asking, “Can you find a strategic place in your writing for this technique?”

As my students boot up their laptops and turn the pages of their notebook, as they gather highlighters and colored pencils to mark their writing, as they discuss amongst themselves what they’re working on and what they think of the lesson and how it might help their writing, I always take a mindful minute to soak it in — to stand there thankful for the mentors that gave me a good lesson and the writers who will grow because of it.

How do you infuse your lessons with mentor texts? What is the flow of your writing lessons? I would love to hear from you on Twitter @allisonmarchett — or feel free to comment below!

 

 

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